Black identity and the Great War: the story from the bottom up
Through Roger p nason
About a dozen years ago, I started to research community identity. I developed questions that I had asked as a historian and archivist by training who studied the settlement of St. Andrews, New Brunswick (NB) after the American Revolution. While most tend to focus on military campaigns, political leaders and elites, I wanted to uncover the identities and motivations of grassroots refugees fleeing the conflict. What prompted them to settle in this new colony?
I started asking these kinds of new questions and found myself giving an example of “bottom-up story”.
Little research has attempted to closely examine recruitment patterns at the community level, particularly in rural Canada. In its cross-border examination from St. Stephen, NB and Calais, Maine, Brandon Dimmel ends by highlighting the personal stories behind local recruiting efforts. Curtis Mainville’s study from Queens County, New Brunswick, in the New Brunswick Military Heritage Project Series, further explores activities on the home front during the Great War. It is based on broader data from the 620,000 attestation files located at Library Archives Canada to sift through the recruiting statistics for the county.
Understanding recruitment in small rural communities still requires filtering through reams of attestation forms to identify local soldiers, nursing sisters, officers and other medical personnel. Accessing them by geographic location in the parish communities where they were born or resided at the time of enlistment has its problems, as forms were often filled out by recruiting officers who spelled out names or incorrectly registered their hometown. The task of identifying enlisted personnel must therefore be corroborated by newspaper accounts as well as family, census and military records. Many of them are now appearing online through subscription websites like Ancestry. These sources reveal additional information about soldiers before and after the war, allowing a more in-depth study of the patterns and motives for enlistment and demobilization.
Without more effort to closely examine these primary sources, we cannot get a full perspective on how small rural communities responded to the 1914 call to arms. Only then will we begin. to determine if the recruiting activities were unique in certain communities or if they are representative of a larger model in the province and across Canada.
I started this story “from the bottom up” by examining the community members who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1914 to 1918 from Grand Manan Island. Located in the southwest corner of the Bay of Fundy, I reconstructed the lives of the 124 men and one woman who stepped forward from about 2,200 citizens of Grand Manan combing newspapers, statistics vital statistics, government manuscripts and family records. Soon I found myself looking at the mainland and researching the experiences of native and black recruits.
How could I be sure that last names like McIntyre, Eatman, Nash, Paul, Dixon, O’Ree, Blizzard, Dymond and Hoyt pointed to black veterans? I needed to fully reconstruct their lives through vital statistics, census records, diary accounts, and land registry office documents. To date, I have confirmed 77 Black enlisted in WWI from across New Brunswick.
As I work on these recordings I update a digital spreadsheet to follow this group.
An analysis of attestation forms and other available service records indicates that recruits were primarily born in St. John County (34), with others born in York County (19), County of Queens (6) and Carleton County (6). Sunbury County provided five recruits and Northumberland County provided two more. Two were born in Nova Scotia and the others were born in the Caribbean (3), Maine (1) and New York (1). A soldier claimed to have been born in South Africa, but other documents overwhelmingly cite him as being born in Elm Hill, near Gagetown, New Brunswick.
The average age of an enlisted person during World War I was 26. Black recruits fell below this average. 55% of black enlisted men were between 17 and 24 years old, while another 21 were between 25 and 35 years old. The oldest member was 46 years old. In terms of marital status, almost 70 percent were single men; the others were married soldiers, two of whom were widowers.
Along professional lines, those enlisted reported backgrounds in agriculture (11), general labor (26), carters / carters (4), and carpenters / lumberjacks (4). Other recruits cited positions as clerks, chefs / cooks, truck drivers / truck drivers, bridge / construction workers, sailors, hotel doormen / doormen, masons / stone cutters / concrete workers, ironworkers, butchers, printers, foremen, barbers, coopers, telephone operators, sales managers and even a horseman.
These recruits enlisted in three centers: Fredericton, Saint John and Sussex. The main enlistment unit among the 77 recruits was the formation of Construction Battalion No.2, an all-black unit created in early 1916. Other enlisted men joined the 12th, 26th, 55th, 69th, 104th, 112th, 140th and 236th Battalions, while still others found themselves attached to the 7th Battalion (Canadian Garrison), the No.1 Construction Battalion, the 1st Depot Battalion or the 65th Depot Battery located in Woodstock. Many first enlisted in reserve battalions. However, we cannot determine which units the recruits were ultimately transferred to without a thorough analysis of personnel service records.
Recent studies of enlisted black Canadians clearly show that most military leaders did not want them in their ranks. When the volunteers first stepped forward after the declaration of war, commanders across the country sought official advice from Divisional Headquarters in Ottawa. The Minister of Militia and Defense was evasive and evasive, leaving the decision to each commander in his region. Colonel George W. Fowler in New Brunswick seemed to reflect a common attitude among recruiting officers in the years leading up to the formation of the 2nd Construction Battalion in March 1916. His rejection of black recruits for “white” battalions is cited by Melissa Shaw: “He had been lucky to have a very good class of recruits, and I didn’t think it was fair for these men that they had to mix with the negroes. “(552)
Further study is needed to find black New Brunswickers who migrated to other parts of Canada and the United States to work and settle before the war. Preliminary research reveals that at least 30 people who registered for US military conscription after April 1917 indicated their residency in Boston and Portland, Maine, as well as in border communities in New Brunswick such as Houlton, Calais and Eastport. Still others returned to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
As more official documents become available and access to contemporary digitized newspapers increases, historians can paint more detailed pictures of the contributions of black enlisted men to the military. This research also offers a unique way to examine the daily lives of families and how they have responded to the ravages of war at the local level.
Former archivist of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Roger P. Nason holds a BA from St. Thomas University and an MA in History from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
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